Museum of Natural History unveils the 1910 Cullinan Diamond Necklace

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; C02

A famous necklace of hundreds of diamonds, including nine rare blue diamonds, was installed Monday at the National Museum of Natural History. And just like its neighbor, the Hope Diamond, the jewelry has an intriguing history.

Standing in the gem vault at the museum, with a security guard watching the proceedings, Jeffrey Post, the curator of the National Gem Collection, opened a white box containing what is known to gemologists and jewelers as the Cullinan Diamond Necklace.

Nestled in white paper was the necklace, radiating sparkles even before any light hit it. The silver necklace has an elaborate bow motif, the 251 diamonds curving into the loops and then the ribbon-shaped arms. An oval-shaped pendant with a 2.6-carat blue diamond drops from the center of the bow, part of the 5.32-carat total of blues.

"This is typical of the Edwardian time period where jewelry had bows and a lacy appearance," Post said. The necklace was made around 1910.

These are the latest priceless gems given to the museum, and this gift was specifically arranged by an anonymous donor from California to coincide with the institution's 100th anniversary. "If it weren't for the Hope Diamond, this would rank as one of the greatest gifts the museum has received. But the piece has a great history because of Cullinan."

Before the necklace was put on public view, Post described its intricate pedigree.

After Thomas Cullinan, the famed South African explorer, bought the Premier Diamond Mine in South Africa, his workers discovered a humongous diamond, which had a total weight of 3,106.75 carats before it was cut and polished. "It was the largest rough diamond ever discovered," Post said. Cullinan presented the massive diamond to King Edward VII for his birthday.

In honor of his own knighthood in 1910, Cullinan commissioned the necklace for his wife, Annie, and the nine blue diamonds represented the nine pieces that were cut from the original stone. Parts of the huge diamond were placed -- in various settings (scepters, rings, crowns, what have you) -- in the jewelry trove of the British royal family.

The necklace was bequeathed to each first daughter in each generation. "In the early 1980s, the great-granddaughter, Anne Robinson, got in touch with Stephen Silver and sold him the heirloom. Then Silver sold the necklace to another owner, who is donating it to us," Post said.

Ever since the Cullinan necklace was displayed at the Smithsonian in 1994, Post has had his fingers crossed that the rare piece would come his way. "The collection has built on itself. Once it became as prominent as it has done, people wanted to be a part of it," he said.

Then he joined a team of lighting, design and graphic specialists, monitored by three security guards in the Harry Winston Gallery, and placed the necklace in its cabinet. A blue moire cloth immediately picked up the soft blue coloring. The curators adjusted the placement by less than an inch to catch the light inside the cabinet. About two feet away, the Hope Diamond was turning around on the pedestal inside its glass vault. That gem, which has been a Smithsonian visitor magnet for a half-century, could size up its new companion, which is much smaller, but stunning nonetheless.

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